Saturday, May 15, 2010

Fantastic Four (20th Century-Fox/Marvel Entertainment, 2005)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was the 2005 Fantastic Four, which I’d ordered recently from Columbia House because I’d liked the sequel — Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer — so much and wanted to see the earlier version. Directed by Tim Story (a good name for a filmmaker) from a script by Mark Frost and Michael France (given that this was a 20th Century-Fox production it’s a wonder that Rupert Murdoch didn’t ask him to change his name to “Michael Freedom”), Fantastic Four took its own sweet time getting to the hero business — the 105-minute movie is almost half over before the Fantastics finally acquire their super-powers — but like its sequel it had a refreshingly light-hearted tone and approach to the super-hero genre in contrast to the ultra-serious tone of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man and Christopher Nolan Batman movies.

Fantastic Four closely follows the origin story from the comic books, albeit with some tasteful updating: scientist and entrepreneur Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) is about to go broke (a tabloid headline reads, “Reed Richards BANKRUPT!”) and has one project he’s hoping will salvage both his scientific and business reputations. He plans to fly a spaceship through an upcoming cosmic storm because he theorizes a similar storm hit earth billions of years ago and was the source for all life on earth — the idea was that it created the DNA molecule and the first single-cell organisms and evolution took it from there — and if he can replicate the process by flying a spaceship through the cosmic cloud, he can learn enough about DNA to cure all diseases, vastly improve life on earth and in the process make himself tons of money. To do this, though, he needs financial backing, and after NASA turns him down he goes to the private sector and finds that the only source of support he can find is his former college acquaintance and current business rival, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) from the tiny country of Latveria, where he’s the absolute ruler. Von Doom offers to bankroll Richards’ expedition but only on condition that his company own 75 percent of all the patents from any discoveries that might result — and Richards, having no other choice, accepts the offer.

The scientific consultant on the expedition will be Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), who was Richards’ girlfriend until she dumped him for Von Doom two years previously; the pilot will be Sue’s hot-shot brother Johnny (Chris Evans), an irresponsible thrill-seeker and womanizer; and Richards’ choice for a pilot, his former college roommate Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), gets relegated to anonymous sidekick. Alas, the cosmic rays hit the spaceship considerably sooner than Richards’ equations projected they would; all five crew members get hit by them and their DNA gets transformed. Reed Richards’ body becomes super-elastic; Sue Storm goes into and out of invisibility; Johnny Storm’s body temperature reaches over 300 degrees and he takes on the ability to become a human fireball and, ultimately, to fly; and Ben Grimm acquires a patina of orange rocks and such amazing super-strength that he can’t pick up ordinary objects or drink out of a cocktail glass without crushing it in his rock-hard fingers. Richards decides to embargo the four and make them stay in his apartment in the Baxter Building, which he nominally owns but is about to be foreclosed on, until he can figure out how to undo the effect of the cosmic rays — even though about the only person who’s permanently harmed by their new beings is Ben, who loses his girlfriend Debbie (though by the end of the film he’s acquired another, a blind Black woman he meets in a bar and who, like the heroine of The Man Who Laughs and the hermit in The Bride of Frankenstein, isn’t distracted by the ugliness of the monster and can therefore “see” his inner goodness) and is permanently changed into something that looks like a heap of orange rocks and literally doesn’t know his own strength. (I joked, in reference to another Marvel character, that he would probably be saying, “At least the Incredible Hulk gets to be normal some of the time!”)

As for Von Doom, his body starts turning into a metal alloy — and he also suffers a financial bath big-time from the failure of his space experiment: the initial public offering in Von Doom Enterprises he was hoping would make him a multi-billionaire gets cancelled and his bankers take control of his company. (The fact that both the principal hero and the principal villain are about to go broke during the story seems a much more topical plot device now than it would have in 2005, when this film was made.) Since his already inflated ego (the film begins with Richards and Grimm looking at the huge statue of Von Doom being erected in the plaza of his building and Ben says, “Typical of Victor Von Doom to build a 30-foot statue of himself”) turns into the full-tilt super-villain Doctor Doom and starts knocking off the people who’ve pissed him off, starting with his investors and ending with the Fantastic Four. By offering to help Ben change back to a normal human, Von Doom gets access to Richards’ lab — in which he’s built a machine that hopefully will change the Fantastics back to normal humans — and Ben indeed goes through the reverse transformation, but Von Doom hooks himself up to the machine to boost his powers and then goes after the others — and Ben, realizing his mistake, puts himself through the treatment and re-Thingifies himself. Though we’ve seen more and better action sequences in other superhero movies, Fantastic Four is a charming movie in the genre even though this is one case in which the sequel was actually better: the pathos of the Silver Surfer character gave the second movie a bit more depth than this one.

I was interested to note on that Michael Chiklis refused to be put through “motion capture” for his scenes as the Thing, and instead insisted on wearing a costume and doing them live-action — which required him to put on a 60-pound latex costume (just four pounds under the weight of Boris Karloff’s makeup as the Frankenstein monster!) and wear it in the heat of a Canadian summer (most of this movie was filmed in Vancouver). The DVD came with a few extras, including a couple of deleted scenes that turned out to be alternate versions of Reed Richards’ marriage proposal to Sue Storm at the end (she turns invisible and he kisses her, and in all the versions she points out to him that he’s kissing her nose) and a so-called “video diary” of the promotion tour for the film — which at least showed off how thick Ioan Gruffudd’s Welsh accent is and therefore made his success at eradicating it in the movie seem that much more amazing — especially since, according to an “trivia” item, the film’s script was being extensively rewritten during the shoot and therefore he had not only to learn new lines constantly but learn to speak them in the American accent he was using for his character.